David Graeber of Goldsmiths University in London, who was instrumental in establishing the horizontal democratic orientation of “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent,” gives an extremely interesting account of his role in its formation and his take on the success of the movement in Naked Capitalism.
The whole piece is well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by his description of the generational base of OWS, and how its radicalism has been marked by Obama’s political trajectory: “We must remember that in 2008, the youth vote went overwhelmingly to Barack Obama and the Democrats. We also have to remember that Obama was running, then, as a candidate of “Change”, using a campaign language that drew liberally from that of radical social movements … This, combined with the fact that Obama was Black, gave young people a sense that they were experiencing a genuinely transformative moment in American politics. … How, then, do you expect a young American voter to feel, after casting a vote for a fundamental change to our political and economic system, on discovering that in fact, they have elected a man who twenty years ago would have been considered a moderate conservative?”
The impact of their initiative on other generations is remarkable. Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch was at Zuccotti Plaza when members of the SEIU arrived fresh from a demonstration of their own in the Wall Street area. He graphically described the scene: “The energy was sky-high, the excitement palpable, the chanting and cheering loud as they looked down on what could only be described visually as a hippie encampment. Had this been the 1960s, conflict would undoubtedly have followed. I found myself with a burly white guy wearing a red Communications Workers of America T-shirt on one side of me and a young black woman with a yellow SEIU T-shirt on the other. He promptly commented with indignation and accuracy: ‘You know, we were saying the 1% and the 99% for like five years and nobody paid attention because we’re unions, we’re the wallpaper!’
“I braced myself for the coming diatribe against the Zuccotti Park protesters for appropriating the slogan and grabbing the glory. Instead, he continued with unmistakable enthusiasm, ‘You know, it’s great that these kids have taken it and put it on the map!’ At which point the young woman next to me chimed in with equal enthusiasm, ‘It’s not just the unions any more! It’s bigger than that!’ ”
That phrase was very telling. It expresses accurately that a mass movement which has been building up for some time is taking inspiration from the defiance and sacrifice of those occupying the park. It’s in the tradition of the liberal-labor coalition that opposed Wall Street in the 1930s and which led to the creation of the New Deal, but it’s a more encompassing pluralist movement that embraces the educated youth, the poor, the immigrant, African, Hispanic, Asian and native Americans, the Hood, the middle class, even sections of the financial aristocracy.
The power of the occupation stems not only from the determination of the occupiers, but also from the symbolic strength of its defiance of Wall Street and its defenders, which galvanizes masses of people who identify with the resistance. The occupiers themselves are still vulnerable: Bloomberg has already issued a veiled threat to their continued occupation by declaring that tents in Zuccotti Park goes beyond the right of freedom of speech and assembly, and the authorities are continually looking for ways to denigrate and isolate the protesters.
These threats mean that it would be a major mistake for OWS to ignore the support of unions and other organized groups in the name of revolutionary purity, even support in the form of elected politicians prepared to stick their necks out to prevent the occupation being broken up. There are many different ways in which the support of the mass movement will be expressed, and the occupiers in the course of their deliberations need to find ways and means to work with them.